After three months of exhaustive cross-examinations, interviews and exhibits, the high profile trial for the Shafia murders has finally come to an end. Mohammad Shafia, his son Hamed, and second wife Tooba Yayha were found guilty of committing an honor killing. They carried out the murder of the three Shafia daughters; Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad.

The trial which gained an international following has captivated Canadians since the beginning. How is it that a family could kill their very own in the name of honor? What twisted and perverted mind would do such a thing? The Shafias held their innocence from the start and many doubted if this was in fact an honor based crime. The jury, however, had no doubts about it and delivered their verdict after mere 15 hours of deliberations.

The Judge’s final remarks to the guilty sums up the high emotions surrounding this trial:  ‘It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous, more honorless crime’. ‘The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your twisted concept of honor, a notion of honor that is founded upon the domination and control of women, a sick notion of honor that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.’

As the disturbing details from the trial emerged, it was evident that the Shafia family was highly dysfunctional with some serious domestic abuse issues. At the head of it was the short tempered, foul-mouthed father who ruled with an iron fist. His illegal, polygamous marriage meant having to constantly lie and portray his first wife, Rona Mohammad, as an aunt. Shafia was a rich businessman, usually away on trips, and immigrated to Canada in 2007 on the “immigrant investor” program. In his absence, his son Hamed took over his command.

The Shafia daughters were the Afghan Muslim father’s worst nightmare. As one columnist aptly described them, ‘Gorgeous Zainab’ was 19, ‘Sultry Sahar’ was 17 and ‘Rebellious Geeti’ was 13. Reveling in the beauty of their youthful bodies, the eldest daughters did not hesitate to show them off. The cellular pictures in their lingerie, in promiscuous poses and with their boyfriends are reflective of their boldness. Zainab and Sahar transformed themselves when they left for school every morning, hiking their skirts, removing the hijab, and changing into revealing tops. Even 13-year-old Geeti followed suit and was once sent home from school for wearing inappropriate clothing.

The psychological oppression at home was severe. The girls were under constant scrutiny for their behavior and conduct, with their freedoms being taken away by the day. The watchful brother eyed their secretive affairs and reported them. That their behavior was normative by Canadian standards made things more difficult. They appealed to social workers and teachers for help, even tried to run away from home to a foster house. All these incidents finally added up to their unfortunate murder.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that honor killings are a problem in the Muslim community, but the familial situation I’ve described is not uncommon. The Shafia family practiced what would be termed cultural or cafeteria Islam. This is the Islam in which immigrant parents raise their children in a relatively secular household but then expect them, the girls especially, to behave as law abiding, pious Muslims. This pick-n-choose ‘Islam’ is epitomized by double standards for girls and boys; where boys are free to gallivant late at night and the girls can dare not be seen working on a school project with a boy.

Obsession with the sexual purity of women is also one of the cornerstones of this twisted version of ‘Islam’; this belief is actually rooted in patriarchal tribal customs and unfortunately has made way into Muslim societies. These families lay no emphasis on Islamic education or on the foundational pillars of faith such as prayer and fasting; all the emphasis goes into tertiary concerns such as wearing hijab, staying away from the opposite sex and my favorite – staying away from pork (not alcohol though). If these people only realized that an understanding of the fundamental tenets of Islam encourages one to automatically take up secondary aspects of the faith, dysfunctional families like the Shafia’s would not exist.

The Muslim community has much to learn from the Shafia murders. For one it highlights the struggles undergone by numerous young Muslim girls. The lure of a secular society mixed with a poor understanding and appreciation of Islam leads to a psycho-spiritual crises for most teenagers. At home, the parents don’t understand their apparent obsession with all things haram; at school their teachers and peers don’t get the ‘draconian’ rules imposed on them. Muslim counselors that can help address the challenges faced by youth are desperately needed; projects like the Naseeha Help Line need to be generously funded by the community. The Shafia girls did appeal to social workers, but these people unfortunately did not have an understanding of the complexity and seriousness of their situation.

As much as one might try to hide, the ‘Muslimness’ of this case has been apparent from the start. Whether it be the references to ‘Allāh’, ‘Qurʾān’ and ‘hijab’ during the proceedings or the analysis of Afghan culture by experts; Islam was certainly under the spotlight. After the killing of Aqsa Pervez, the Shafia murders have given people another reason to question the link between Islam and honor killings. People hesitantly approached me to ask about my ‘position’ on honor killings and to clarify the Islamic stance – it’s sad that we have to do these things.

Media coverage of the trial was generally fair in my estimation. By that, I mean there wasn’t a general deliberate attempt to pin the blame on the religion of the accused; if anything, it was patriarchal aspects of Afghan culture that took the hit mostly. Not all media outlets were generous though; Michael Coreninterviewed Islamophobe Robert Spencer who tried to assure viewers that Islam did in fact allow honor killings. Barbara Kay also wrote an article trying to establish a link between Muslims and the barbaric custom. Writers across the anti-Muslim blogosphere shed crocodile tears to mark this tragic event; the Shafia girls will become their poster children for years to come.

One of the positive outcomes of this media attention was the ‘Call to Eradicate Domestic Violence’ issued by CAIR-CAN and was endorsed by over a hundred Muslim organizations. This statement denounced domestic violence, honor killings in particular, and vowed to address the issue at mosques across the country. This resulted in Imams across the nation jointly tackling domestic violence in their sermons on December 9th 2011. What is more surprising is the widespread media coverage this received, with almost every major news source reporting it in Canada; the National Post went as far as publishing imām Sikandar Hashmi’s sermon – an unnatural, but appreciated, gesture from the right-wing newspaper.

Much will be said about this saga in the days to come. Some will criticize multiculturalism, some will pin the blame on religion while others will say the ‘system’ failed them. For me, it is the non-existence of a firm understanding of Islam that leads to all this. This understanding would have taught the murderers to fear God more than society and it would have allowed the daughters to see their faith as something more than a set of dry rules. Let’s hope that this will be last time we will hear of such a heinous crime being committed by a coreligionist.

First published at MuslimMatters on Jan 30th, 2012


First published in The Silhouette on December 1st, 2011

My soul cringes with disgust every time details of the Shafia murders are revealed. So much so that I have difficulty finishing the articles detailing accounts of what the Shafia sisters were going through. But unlike most people following the trial, my disgust and anger is twice that of anyone else – partly as a human, and partly as a Muslim.

Every now and then we hear of people committing unspeakable crimes. Here in Canada, the most recent one was that of Russell Williams. While public outrage and anger was directed at Williams alone during his trial, this certainly is not the case for the Shafia trial. Afghan Muslim immigrants have allegedly committed the Shafia murders. The blame in this case has been relegated to everything but the accused, it seems. Different groups are now using this unfortunate tragedy as an opportunity to advance their respective agendas.

Right-wing media outlets have already started using the incident to attack multiculturalism and its failure in Canada. They argue that it is political correctness and accommodation of immigrants that doomed the four women. Being overly sensitive towards Muslims is what caused the authorities to overlook the ‘honour killing’ that was about to take place. How these people mix-up religious accommodation with abuse towards women is beyond me. Even the most extreme interpretations of multiculturalism don’t call for accommodation of moral vices.

The Islamophobes are using it to warn us of the impinging threat that Muslims pose to this nation. The Shafia sisters, along with Aqsa Pervez, will now become the poster children of their movement. They will use this incident to further their case that Islam is, in fact, what inspired this crime. Statements from Quran establishing the sanctity of human life, the prohibition of such despicable acts and the commandment for the good treatment of women by the Prophet Muhammad are meaningless for this group.

The secularists are using it to prove the evils associated with religion, and the misogyny that they claim to be inherent in it. Their belief that Muslim women are forced to wear headscarves is further strengthened and their mission to liberate the ‘poor Muslim woman’ has gained more momentum. Their inability to differentiate patriarchal tribal customs from the normative practices of Islam is unfortunate, to say the least. These uninformed superficial attempts only end up inflicting more harm upon Muslim women, who, for the record, are quite capable of speaking for themselves.

Since the label of an ‘honour killing’ has sensationalized the murder and has sparked a series of unnecessary debates, I for one will attempt to set the record straight. Mohammed Shafia, if you are in fact guilty, then you are a sick man. Killing your own kin is one of the most despicable acts humanly possible; doing so in the name of preserving honour is even more perverted. The dysfunctional family you fostered was your own doing. Now you’ve punished your daughters for your poor parenting.

You’ve dishonoured not only yourself but your co-religionists too. Average Canadian Muslims like me will bear the brunt of your misdeeds. We will spend the coming ages explaining to people that our faith condemns, in the strongest terms, the heinous act you committed. We will have to go the extra mile to convince people that Muslim women observe their faith out of their own free will, and not under the Nazi-style hegemony you had imposed on your family. Freedom was all your family yearned for, but you deprived them of it. I hope you too are treated in a similar fashion, with your freedom restricted behind bars for good.


The National Post reported two cases of murder which it alleges are honour killings. Their coverage of these murders and the editorial written supporting the use of the term ‘honour killing’ are perfect examples of why this term is problematic and should be avoided in journalism unless necessary.

The Post alleges that these murders are honour killings based solely on the fact that they were committed by South Asian men. No statement from police investigations reported this and neither have the perpetrators of this heinous crime made remarks alluding to such an intent.  For all we know at this point , these two murders could have driven by jealousy, anger or revenge. Also interesting to note is that the National Post, to my knowledge, is the only major Canadian newspaper to have reported this story in such light. Perhaps the others ones decided to be a little more cautious before passing judgment.

The problem with the term ‘honour killing’ is that it stereotypes the ethnic background and religious beliefs of the perpetrators . Usage of this term sensationalizes the murder and redirects the anger from the killer to the ethnic or religious community to which they belong. It takes away the real debate, which is on a form of domestic violence, to unnecessary debates on immigration, multiculturalism and religion; none of which are issues at stake. Crimes will take place as long as there are humans in Canada; they might be committed by ethnic immigrants or natives like Karla Hamolka or Russell Williams. Murders motivated by jealousy aren’t labelled ‘jealousy killings’; the same should be applied to other crimes.

Aqsa Parvez’s story is prime example of this phenomenon . She has now become the poster child for groups that attack Islam and demonize Muslims.  Her story is frequently quoted to demonstrate how barbaric Islam is and how backwards its adherents are. This has gotten to the point where many people sincerely believe that Islam endorses or even condones such odious crimes. People fail to see that honour killings are medieval forms of domestic violence and are endorsed by no one. Members of the Sikh community have also committed these crimes in Canada; it obviously doesn’t mean their faith calls for it.

Should we not have an open debate on honour killings if it is a problem in our community? People could also make the argument that generalizations are fair if its reoccurring from a particular group of people. Statistics however point otherwise. Out of  around 5500 homicides committed in the past 9 years,  13 have been honour killings. This is about .23% of all homicides; hardly enough data to make such vast generalizations. At this point, its more important for us to have debates on other forms of domestic violence.

Barbara Kay’s suggestion to introduce specific legislation for honour killings is even more absurd.  She argues that famliy members often aid the father, who usually carries out the killing, and they too should be automatically charged. Again, this generalization is based on the 13 cases in Canada? Such legislation would only be harmful as it would automatically cause innocent family members to become suspects. It would also cause investigators to make assumptions about the crime without evidence to support it and would compromise its validity.  For example, they might throw the book at the father automatically while it might have actually been the mother who was responsible.

This suggestion was rightfully turned down by the courts who said that a murder is a murder, regardless of motive. Just like we don’t have specific legislation for crimes of passion and jealousy, we shouldn’t have one for honour killings. Each crime is to be treated by on a case by case basis . We ought to trust the justice system to be competent enough to identify the criminals and exact on the them the punishment they deserve.